Read Ahriman: sorcerer Online

Authors: John French

Ahriman: sorcerer

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Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements

As ever this book owes much of its shape and existence to many people:

To Liz, for, well, just about everything really.

To Graham McNeill, for all the chats about the XV Legion, past and future.

To Aaron Dembski-Bowden, my Brother in Darkness, for all the long conversations about the nature of the warp, time, Black Crusades and the Rubric.

To the Black Library editors, for shepherding this insanity into being.

To Ead Brown, Colin Goodwin, Trevor Larkin, Andy Smillie, Greg Smith and Chris Wraight for their encouragement and feedback.

And all the rest.

This one’s yours, guys.

Warhammer 40,000

It is the 41st millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.

Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst His soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Astra Militarum and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants – and worse.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

Quote

Abandon the limitations of what you think is possible and you are left with a universe that is truly infinite. That realisation is the root of all power. Cage your mind with the possible and you have stolen your own future.

– Rumination of the primarch Magnus the Red,recorded in the Athenaeum of Kalimakus.

Prologue

Prologue

The old man was close to death. The attendants watched the quill tremble in his fingers as it scratched across the page. They did not move. There was an order to this moment, an order that stretched back to before any of them could remember, so they waited and watched as the old man shivered and shook in the last moments of his life. They called him the Remembrancer, though none knew why. Ultimately the reason did not matter, only the fact of him, and those who had come before him.

The Remembrancer took a wheezing breath. The quill stopped moving. Ink began to bloom across the parchment. The cloak of cables, which fell from his skull and back, trembled. He raised his head and turned it from side to side, as though looking around the domed chamber, as though the metal visor riveted to his skull was not there, as though he could see. His mouth flapped silently, lips trying to form words without a tongue. The hooded and cloaked attendants waited. The only sound was the rasp of the old man’s breath, and thegulp-hissof the tubes linked to his body.

The brass and iron lectern holding his shrivelled frame quivered. The blue flames of the candles that ringed the lectern and man spluttered and then stretched high, burning brighter and brighter. The Remembrancer’s back arched. Tubes popped from his flesh and sprayed blood and fouled water into the air. The liquid boiled before it hit the floor. The man screamed in silence. The cables and pipes began to glow with heat where they connected to him. Smoke rose from his body. His hand spasmed, smearing the ink on the parchment. The visor covering his eyes blazed with heat and began to melt.

The attendants moved forwards as one, unfolding from niches which ringed the chamber. There were nine of them, all robed in grey, the face of each hidden behind silver masks that left only one eye uncovered. They closed on the old man in a circle. He was still screaming, but now something was moving in his mouth, something that thrashed as it grew from inside his throat. He began to croak out sounds that might have been words, but which popped and gurgled like breaking cartilage and bubbling pus. The circle of attendants closed in further. When they were two paces away, the Remembrancer went still. The candles went out. The sounds coming from his throat became a simple whimper of agony. He went utterly still, and then slumped forwards, his face wiping across the still-wet ink of his life’s work.

The attendants worked quickly. All but one of them had done this before, and all of them knew that they did not have long. They lifted the smoking body of the Remembrancer from the lectern, pulling the cables and tubes from their plugs as they did so. The iris hatch in the domed roof of the chamber opened. An unconscious figure was lowered through the ceiling on a hoist. The plug ports for the waiting cables and tubes already dotted his body, and a visor of silver covered his eyes. Of his limbs only his left arm remained. The attendants met him as he descended, attaching the cables and web of pipes before he settled into the lectern.

One of the attendants glanced towards the ink-blotted page of the book; it had begun to char at the edges. The others had noticed this too and began to work faster. Finally, they put the quill in the man’s hand, and walked backwards to the chamber’s edge. Smoke was rising from the book.

The man awoke. The new Remembrancer’s mouth moved as though he still had a tongue, and then became still. Slowly he turned his blinded gaze to the page in front of him. The candles lit one after another, their flames burning blue. The Remembrancer’s arm jerked and the quill began to move across the parchment. At the edge of the chamber the attendants watched, and waited.

Part One: War of ProphecyI – Dreams

I

Dreams

Soon it will be done.

Grimur Red Iron closed his eyes, feeling the growl of the boarding torpedo around him as it cut through the void. He ran his tongue across his teeth; they had grown long. He shifted, feeling the knot of mis-grown and damaged muscle twist on his hunched back. The hunt had been long, but it was almost done.Soon,he thought again and opened his eyes.

His pack waited beside him, their armour and weapons stained red by warning lights. Thirty figures of grey iron filled the narrow space. The marks of time and battle were on all of them: in the scars on their war-plate, in the worn handles of their weapons, but most of all in their silence.

A scream of tearing metal filled the air. The torpedo shook, and shook, with the roaring shriek of metal grinding past its hull. Grimur felt his muscles tighten against his bones, and braced. The torpedo slammed to a halt, and its tip exploded outwards. Smoke and molten droplets blew back into the hold. Grimur launched out of his seat and his pack kin rose as one to follow him.

He came out of the smoke at a run. A human stood before him, eyes wide in a face of stitched and scarred skin. Grimur noticed the filth-spattered overalls and the barbed iron collar around the human’s neck. His axe cut the man in half, from head to groin. Blood and bowel fluid flooded onto the deck. Another figure appeared, a ragged outline at the edge of sight. Grimur straightened and fired. The bolt shell turned the figure to red tatters and bone shards.

He could smell the warp’s sweet reek even within his helm, like the taste of rotting meat and honey. But it was the other scent that drew him on through the smoke and the strobing detonations, the scent of a soul that had walked these decks and touched this vessel’s skin. The one they sought had fled long ago, but his spoor remained. Sycld and Lother had followed the scent through the Underverse of the warp, and led them to this ship orbiting a dead star at the Eye’s edge. Half crippled and skeleton-crewed, the ship was almost a corpse, but it had still croaked its name in defiance as Grimur’s ships had run it down:Blood Crescent, it had hissed across the vox. That it would die was a certainty, but that did not matter, not truly; what mattered was that it spoke its secrets before the end.

Grimur ran through the hammering of gunfire and ducked into a wide passage mouth. His pack kin bounded forwards behind him, chainblades growling to life, teeth and bone amulets rattling on scarred grey armour plate. They moved without words or howls, like wolves that had seen many winters and lost their hunger for blood. More of the ship’s ragged and mutilated crew died, their bodies burst and hacked apart, their blood slicking the rusted metal of the decking. The thunder rhythm of bolters filled the air as the pack swept on through the murk, deeper into the rotting ship.

Crowds of slave crew fled before Grimur, choking the passage with screams and bodies. He cut his way through them without slowing down. Dark red blood drooled down his armour, pooling in its dents and matting the black fur of his cloak. He killed with every step – cutting, trampling and crushing. He killed in silence, his mouth closed over his long teeth, weapon and body moving as one. He felt only the smack of his axe hitting meat, and the judder of the haft in his hand. The rest, the blood slapping his armour, the cries of the dead, meant nothing. The joy of battle had left him long ago. This slaughter was just what it was, what it had always been: a means to an end.

A roar filled the passage as Grimur broke through the crowd of dead and dying crew. He looked up. A creature of twisted muscle stared back at him with bloodshot eyes. It stood head and shoulders taller than a Space Marine, its face hidden by a plate of hammered metal. It had no hands, just stumps fused with blades. Chains hung from hooks in its pale skin, clinking behind it as it paced forwards.

A blade-tipped arm punched towards him. Grimur saw the blow unfold. He kicked from the floor, twisted past the killing point, and buried the curve of his axe in the mutant’s head. The axe wrenched free, blood fizzing to smoke in its power field. The mutant began to fall. Grimur landed and kept running. Behind him the mutant’s body hit the deck in a shudder of dead muscle and fat.

The bolt-round exploded across his chest before he had taken another step. He stumbled, his helmet visor suddenly bright with warning runes. Pain spread across his chest. He caught his balance, and pivoted to face the direction of fire.

A Space Marine was advancing towards him, bolter held in one hand, a hooked chainaxe in the other. Flaking layers of red covered its armour and tatters of skin hung from the spikes studding its pauldrons. Severed human hands flapped from chains at its waist. It wore no helm, and it grinned with hooked iron teeth from a face of flayed muscle. It had a name for its own kind. A name which, like every other part of its fallen life, was a lie – a vile daubing covering the colour of its sins. The Harrowing, they called themselves.

Grimur leapt, his axe spinning low, old muscle unwinding into the cut. The Harrowing warrior almost killed him then. The chainaxe spun to life as it hacked forwards. Dried blood and skin scattered from the turning teeth. The cut was fast, very, very fast. Grimur just had time to half twist aside. Chain teeth chewed across his right shoulder and the snout of his helm. His helmet display blanked out in a flare of static. He lashed out with the butt of his axe, felt it hit armour and rock the Harrowing warrior back. He kicked out, still blind. His boot crashed into something solid, and a snarl of rage filled the air. His vision cleared in time to see the warrior’s chainaxe descending towards his head. He fired his pistol then, holding it low. The rounds took the other warrior’s legs out from beneath him. Grimur brought his axe around and down, and the warrior’s grinning head fell away in a wash of black blood.

Grimur straightened above the kill. Carefully, he clamped the pistol to his thigh, and reached up to pull the ruin of his helmet from his head. The foetid air met the bare skin of his face. He ran a bloody hand across his scalp, mottling the tangle of faded tattoos with blood. An old habit, but one he kept even here, even when the blood smelled of ruin. Around him the tunnel had become quiet, the sounds of battle a distant rumble. His pack kin were swift, and the rest of the murder-make would be done with soon.

The stink of the Harrowing warrior’s blood rose to fill his senses as he breathed. He could taste the tumours seeded in its flesh, and the dead meat of its body. He wondered whether he would one day be the same, if the light of the Eye would sink deep enough into his bones that he would no longer be a Lord of Fenris, if he would end his thread of life a beast walking in the frost-night of the Underverse.

Fenris.Could he even remember it? Sometimes it seemed just a name, a word to conjure faded memories of starlight glinting on the sea, the roar of cracking pack ice and the sight of blood clotting on snow.

‘He was here.’ Sycld’s voice broke Grimur’s thoughts, but he did not turn. He had known the Rune Priest had entered the passage without needing to see or hear him. He did not need to answer, either. Instead he bent down, dipped the tip of his armoured finger in the spreading pool of blood and then touched it to his tongue. For a second he just tasted salt and iron, then the blood memory came, a shimmer of half sensations, smeared with madness and corruption. He saw the decks of the ship he stood on sluiced with blood as sacrifices were impaled on altars, he saw a figure in power armour with a helm shaped like a hound, and he saw a fading image of a banner with a silver sword held in a black fist on a field of red.

The dead warrior had once been called Elscanar, but he had forgotten that name long before Grimur’s axe had cut his thread. The blood and flesh remembered, though.

Grimur straightened, aware again of the curve in his back and the hunch of his shoulders. Sycld’s frost-blue eyes looked back at him. Unconsciously Grimur’s hand went to the shard of red iron hanging on a cord around his neck. The Rune Priest had also removed his helm, and the plait of his white hair had uncoiled from the top of his shaven head to hang to his waist. Skeletal crow’s wings spread across his chestplate and pauldrons. Bird skulls, and dead eyes set in amber hung from the edges of his battleplate, clicking against the storm-grey ceramite as he moved. Pale, almost transparent skin pulled and creased over the sharp bones of Sycld’s face as he bared teeth that were long and needle fine, closer to those of a feline than a wolf.

He was young, at least young in the company of Grimur’s pack. When the hunt had begun Sycld had been newly blooded, his face full, his eyes golden and his laugh quick. Time and the hunt had changed that. He had found the wyrd was in him. His body was shrunken, flesh seeming to suck back into bone even as the wyrd bloomed in his soul. Now he rarely talked, and the rest of the pack turned their eyes from him as he passed. He was a nightwalker, a hunter of the underworld, and while he was still their kin, he stood apart even from the other Rune Priests.

‘Ahriman was here,’ said Sycld again, his voice low and dry. ‘I can feel his steps on the floors, his touch on the bones of theBlood Crescent. Time has passed but the scent is still strong.’

‘Strong enough for you to lead us to him?’

Sycld’s eyes fluttered closed, and his tongue ran across his teeth.

‘Perhaps,’ he said, after a pause.

‘We must have the scent,’ growled Grimur. They were close, he knew it in his bones and breath. The wyrd was not in him, but he knew. They could not fail now. They had given too much to fail now. ‘Take it from this one.’ Grimur inclined his head to the dead Space Marine at their feet.

Sycld held Grimur’s gaze for a long moment. Then the Rune Priest bowed his head and stepped forwards, strings of finger bones clacking against the haft of his staff.

‘By the edge of your axe, my jarl,’ he said. The seals on his gauntlet released with a hiss of pressure. Sycld knelt and ripped a handful of meat from the corpse. Blood oozed between his bare fingers. He brought it up to his face, and inhaled. The pupils in his pale eyes almost vanished. He breathed out. White mist filled the air. Grimur felt his skin prickle. His right hand tightened around the throat of his axe.

Sycld nodded once, and tilted his head back. His mouth opened wide, cartilage cracking, skin stretching. Grimur felt his hand close on the red iron amulet around his neck. Sycld’s jaws opened wider and wider. He dropped the meat into his mouth and his teeth closed. He swayed where he knelt, face still upturned, blood running down his distorted cheeks. There were no pupils in his eyes now. Frost bloomed across his armour. He began to shake.

Grimur lifted his axe, his eyes fixed on the Rune Priest. The warp had touched them all. It had wound its way inside their bones and bred with the beast that lurked beneath their skin. They were all one step from abomination, and when the Rune Priest ran the path of dreams he touched that fate. Sycld roared, the sound echoing and repeating, rolling with pain. Black blood and bile vomited from between his teeth. Grimur brought the axe up to strike.

The silence halted his blow. Sycld had slumped to the deck, his eyes and mouth closed, his fingers twitching.

‘Brother,’ said Grimur, but did not lower the axe. Sycld did not move. A whine and hiss of armour drew Grimur’s gaze upwards. Halvar and ten of the pack stood beside him, their weapons and armour sheened with blood. All of them had removed their helmets. Fresh blood marked the mouths and jaws of some.

This must end soon,or we will be lost.

‘We are clear to the central core on this deck,’ said Halvar, his gaze flicking to the beheaded warrior, and the slumped form of Sycld.

Grimur opened his mouth, but as he did so, Sycld’s eyes opened. The Rune Priest’s face had returned to its normal shape, and his eyes were hard as he stood. He reached up and picked a shred of meat from his teeth with a bare hand.

‘I have it,’ he said, his voice like wind murmuring across an ice field. ‘I can see the path he took, his shadow body dances on the edge of the netherworld, seeking some fragment of the past. We have the scent, we can hunt.’

Ahriman ran and the wolves ran after him. His breath panted in his lungs, and his bare feet bled into the dust. The night was a silver-scattered dome of sable above him. Tattered strands of light trailed from his left hand. He clenched his fist tighter, feeling the threads squirm against his fingers. Behind him howls rose to the moon. He looked back; the wolves were close, black blurs of movement near to the ground. Their eyes burned coal red and molten gold.

Too close.Far, far too close.

The howls came again. He looked ahead to where the cliff rose before him, close, so close. He leapt for the face of pale rock. Scree slipped beneath his feet, and suddenly he was tumbling back, and the howls rose in triumph.

This is not real,he thought as he fell.This air in my lungs is just a memory, the light just an idea.

He hit the ground. Air gasped from his lips, and he rolled to his feet. The wolves came out of the night, jaws wide, tongues of fire lapping from their throats. A stink of blood, smoke and matted fur was thick in the air. He stood.

This is not real.His eyes met theirs.It is a dream, a painting created by scraps of experience and imagination.

The wolves leapt, burning droplets of spittle falling from teeth of ice.

But a dream can still kill you.

Ahriman jumped up the cliff face. Jaws fastened on his ankle. He screamed and kicked down. His grip slipped, and he was swinging by one hand, feet scrabbling on the rock face. The golden threads of light writhed in his left hand, struggling to break free. The wolf bit deeper. Words bubbled up in his mind as blood scattered from the wound.

‘We have come for you,’ hissed a voice. ‘We will never tire. We will open your belly to the crows, and feed your soul to the serpent at the world’s heart. We are your oblivion, Ahzek Ahriman. Your soul will sing to the night forevermore.’